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Eyes on the sky as drier season affects expectations

South Australian grower James Venning says it is difficult to tell how the season is tracking because it has been such a roller-coaster ride.
Photo: Supplied

Each year, GroundCover™ follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the cropping season. In this fifth instalment for 2023, they tell staff writers how the season is shaping up.

New South Wales

Broden Holland and his family grow dryland wheat, canola and faba beans across 4400 hectares and run 6000 wethers near Thuddungra, north-west of Young in southern NSW.

Although the season has become much drier, the disease pressure will likely remain high if we record some rainfall in the lead-up to harvest. Accordingly, we have followed our disease management plan and applied fungicide at growth stages 32, 39 and 60. However, we are still seeing Septoria tritici blotch in the wheat due to heavy dews and high levels of disease pressure.

While the crops still have access to some stored soil moisture reserves, they are drawing heavily on what is there. We would love to see some rain. Our moisture probe under the canola says 60 millimetres of moisture remains (on 26 September). That will not last long because canola uses about 6mm of water daily. The moisture probe under the wheat has about 120mm of moisture left. Wheat uses 3 to 4mm a day.

Without rain, we are estimating we’ll harvest about four tonnes per hectare of wheat. With rain (depending on how much falls), we could end up with 5t/ha.

Our faba beans have filled in well, are chest-high and look good. They all seem to be podding up well.

We have been using the boomspray to manually spot-spray weeds. We have not used our camera sprayer as much because all the weeds have germinated earlier than in other years.

All our harvest gear has been maintained and is ready for harvest. Our harvest staff are also all lined up for whenever the crops ripen.

I recently spoke about our experiences using seasonal forecasts to make on-farm cropping decisions for a GRDC webinar. Nearly every decision we make on-farm is influenced by the climatic outlook. We need to work out the climate risk ourselves rather than waiting for agencies to tell us. This year, we have tried to tailor our inputs according to a predicted drier season, which has eventuated, rather than aiming for a higher yield we hope to achieve. The approach has worked well so far.

We have carted all the lime to the farm that we intend to spread in readiness for application ahead of sowing next year.

Something I learned this past two months was the value of spraying our wheat crops earlier for aphids. There is plenty of barley yellow dwarf virus around, which has caused yellowing of the tips of the flag leaves. There is no doubt the wheat will likely suffer a small grain yield penalty. Next time, I know that if I see aphids in wheat, I need to spray them. Usually, I work on having a threshold of aphids present before I spray, but that did not work out as hoped this year.

Western Australia

Wayne and Jody Pech run North Stirling Downs Agriculture in WA’s Great Southern region. Established in 1961, the business is a mixed farm focusing on sustainable production of high-quality food and fibre. It employs seven staff. The mixed farm encompasses 13,000 hectares and 20,000 sheep and receives on average 350mm of rain a year.

Dealing with seasonal variations is the nature of farming. After dry-sowing our crops we have experienced good rainfall events which have added to fairly full soil profiles off the back of a good season last year. As a result, we have had to be careful accessing paddocks during this season to apply sprays and topdress with nitrogen.

Although we use tramlines to minimise the impact of machinery, we have incurred some damage in the paddocks, which we will need to renovate in the new year after harvest. The window for using planes for spraying or nitrogen application has been very narrow this season.

The new sprayer, with a 48-metre boom, is proving a useful asset as it has quite a small footprint and low impact on paddocks, which is delivering some good efficiencies to our operations.

Despite a couple of heat events, September has been fairly kind to us with no frosts, but we won’t know the full seasonal effects on our grain until we harvest it. Our Planet barley is progressing well for hay production at this point in the season and will be used on our own property. This variety is proving very flexible in our system as a high-biomass producer for either grazing, grain or hay, depending on our needs.

At this point in the season, we are optimistic that we will exceed our budgeted yields – and five-year average yields – of 3t/ha for cereals and 1.5 t/ha for canola.

We are having to devote time to sheep work as prices are low and we are having to make careful decisions about preparing stock for sale and retaining breeding stock. Now we are moving on to prepare machinery for the impending harvest.

Sourcing labour continues to consume some time but we have had success in a recent permanent recruitment and we have three causals lined up for harvest. Competition in the labour market appears to be easing a bit so we can now focus on quality recruits.

With a daughter returning for a year on the farm from the University in Melbourne and two new recruits starting in February next year, it is giving Jody and I an opportunity to plan a break mid-2024. It is all too easy to get caught up in the busyness of a farm enterprise and sometimes you have to step back, trust your staff and take a breather to reflect and improve on the ways we do things.

South Australia

James Venning, with his wife Lauren and parents Max and Therese, runs Barunga Grains at Bute, on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. Enterprises include wheat, lentils, canola, barley and some lupins (in parts of paddocks where lentils cannot be grown).

We got good rainfall in the back half of August, which was well-received because by the middle of the month some crops were starting to die on our poorer soils. But we had 40mm in the second half of the month, followed by another 25mm in early September, so things are almost back on track.

It’s still hard to tell how the season is tracking, because it’s been such a roller-coaster. The yield potential has fallen right out of the poorer soils, but in other areas with better soil moisture the crops didn’t really slow down. I think we should yield about average, but we also had a lot of hot days in the second half of September, so that will affect things.

By the start of October we had just about finished harvest preparation, servicing trucks and bins and so on. We were also installing on-farm accommodation for harvest workers. We expected to start desiccating canola and lentils in early October, and hopefully harvest in mid-October – the earliest we have ever started harvesting by two weeks – purely because of the heat we had in September.


Mick Pole runs a cropping property at Walpeup in north-western Victoria. Enterprises include wheat, barley, lentils, occasional canola, as well as vetch, lupins and peas for brown manure.

We had very good weather in August and September; we were just extremely lucky to have an almost-full profile of water coming into the season. Moisture probes at the start of October were showing the extremities of wet to dry, and we were experiencing a few mid-30-degree days with wind, so we’re not sure how they will affect yields. Two major frost nights in peak flowering reduced yields somewhat, but nothing more than normal for those particular areas of the farm.

We are expecting yields around a ‘good average’. We might still pull off above-average yields if we get some nice surprises from the weather from here on in. We are currently concentrating on harvest preparation and workplace improvements. Barley desiccation was very close to application at the start of October, while brown manure paddocks required camera spraying was also critical to get hold of weeds like fleablane.

Grain prices have been strong, but it’s a matter of whether they can continue to hold as Australia’s crop comes in. It would be nice to hold decent prices as harvest starts.


Nigel Corish and his family run New Leaf Ag at Condamine on Queensland’s Western Downs, purchased in 2017 after a move from Goondiwindi. The main enterprises are dryland and irrigated cereal and cotton cropping.

We have had 6.6mm of rain in the past two months, so it is really drying out. Annual rainfall to early October is 220mm, which compares to an average of 600mm. I am pleasantly surprised by how well the winter crops have held on, considering the dry conditions. Winter crops had just 23mm of in-crop rain.

We have just finished harvesting barley, which yielded 2.7t/ha. Wheat has not looked as good. Initial paddocks were about 1t/ha, which is disappointing. Chickpeas have benefited from the dry conditions and have been able to get their tap roots down into the moisture and should yield about 1.5t/ha to 2t/ha.

The dry conditions have made us question whether to plant a long-fallow paddock to sorghum as planned. The decision will be made in early December, but we really need to get at least 70 to 80mm of rain to make it worthwhile. If we don’t plant sorghum, we will continue to fallow that paddock.

Weed-wise, there are definitely less this year compared to last year. We’ve been using the Weedit to keep on top of hard-to-kill weeds. With the dry weather, we will continue to contour a few hectares to improve erosion. We’re hoping that this El Nino is a short, sharp one and conditions will swing back.

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